Great Restaurants You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
The summerhouse at Darsham Nurseries. Photograph by Mr Willie Williams, courtesy of Darsham Nurseries
The best under-the-radar places to eat.
In these days of energetic, big restaurant PR companies, content and news-hungry social media and an almost feverish increase in the focus on food, every new restaurant seems to arrive trailing a tornado of attention. But for every super-hyped Sexy Fish or Flavour Bastard (uh-huh), there are hundreds of unsung joints, just going about their daily business of sending customers back out into the world, happy and fed.
I started thinking about this after posting an Instagram photo of excellent, glossy and pungent merguez sausages from La Gourmandina on Lamb’s Conduit St in London. This chic side street isn’t short of good restaurants, but if I’m in the area, more often than not, I find myself in this quirky French-Italian hybrid. It looks like a coffee shop from its pistachio-painted frontage and, yes, it serves a fine latte, pastries and some terrific focaccia sandwiches and arancini to an enthusiastic lunchtime crowd. But if you venture into the back room, there’s a wonderful little restaurant, its menu bristling with homemade pastas – buckwheat gnocchi, maybe, with white asparagus and wild garlic, or wild duck pappardelle, Palermo-style chickpea pancakes and then porc aux poireaux et petits oignons. Totally random, quite eccentric and entirely cheering, this is an establishment untouched by the hands of the restaurant consultant.
Roast cauliflower, herb yogurt, saffron butter and pine nuts at Darsham Nurseries. Photographs courtesy of Darsham Nurseries
I love places where the chefs care more about food and cooking than media profiles. Places such as Darsham Nurseries in Suffolk, where talented Mr Thom Eagle and Ms Lola Demille whip up enchanting dishes, frequently veg-focused and shimmering with Middle Eastern flavours. Or the unassuming Rutland Arms pub in Sheffield, where Mr Richard Storer offers a regular pub menu that “fulfils the requirement of feeding hungry people” (footie fans) with prawn cocktails and bhaji butties while feeding his own passion for ambitious bistro food, such as roast hake, its pungent bean stew fortified with Iberico ham stock or Basque-style txuleton steaks.
Or the unconventional young Italians who’ve braved the curry house homogeneity of Brick Lane with their Enoteca Pomaio, which celebrates the produce of an organic Tuscan vineyard with imported salumi and cheeses and rich, aromatic wild boar ragu. The word “passion” is so overused when it comes to cooking, but sometimes, when we’re talking about individuals determinedly ploughing their own culinary furrow, it does have a place. I love Cheesy Tiger on the Margate harbour arm, where every dish features fromage, the wines are good, the clientele rackety and the pong of seaweed fragrances the air. And Cal’s Own (geddit?) in Jesmond, Newcastle, where pizza otaku Mr Calvin Kitchin’s laboriously crafted beauties, all Sicilian sea salt and Campanian tomato and mozzarella, are so authentic they’ve attracted the attention of the notoriously picky Associazione Verace Pizza Napolitana while annoying those customers less dedicated to authenticity and more to ham and pineapple. Mr Kitchin has steadfastly refused to pander.
Cheesy Tiger. Photograph courtesy of Cheesy Tiger
Perhaps these gems remain under the critical radar because their fans like to keep them to themselves. When Ranjit’s Kitchen in Glasgow’s less fashionable Pollockshields, with its wonderful home-cooked Panjabi food, all handmade paneer and freshly tempered spices, briefly landed at the top of the city’s list on the dreaded TripAdvisor, its fans were outraged. This was theirs. It’s still up there, but jostling with the usual crowd-sourced rubbish, so it’s pretty much hiding in plain sight. I’m delighted for the owners. They truly deserve to succeed, but I share the fans’ distaste in the way I used to feel when my favourite indie band unacceptably hurtled up the charts. Go away, basic parvenus, I saw them first. I’m like this abroad, too. In Scicli, Sicily, a stunningly beautiful Baroque town I go to as often as I can, I avoid the ambitious restaurants making pasta out of carob and elaborate jellied desserts in favour of Caffè Sicilia in the less chic main square for a plate of pasta doused in a pesto of local pistachios while being observed with beady suspicion by the piazza’s population of little old Sicilian men. Bliss.
Calzone at Cal’s Own. Photographs by Mr Peter Atkinson, courtesy of Cal’s Own
Off duty from my restaurant critic gig, I will always choose the small, unshowy heroes over the big tickets. Long may they continue to do their thing, untroubled (mostly) by the likes of me. When another exquisite, vintage-tiled pie and mash shop bites the dust, I remember my own “use ’em or lose ’em” mantra. (However, if it morphs, unrenovated, into a fine dim-sum specialist, as has happened with Shanghai in Dalston, that’s all to the good. I confess I never developed a taste for jellied eels.)
Your neighbourhood 10-year old trattoria might not be knocking up unicorn toast to lure in the Instagram brigade or serving kimchi and biodynamic orange wines, but it’ll do better than that. It will make you feel like a valued customer and remind you of the simple joys of a good carbonara. And that’s worth more than any number of “likes”, believe me.